CURIO BOX / HINDEMITH: Kammermusik.* BERIO: Folk Songs for Mezzo-soprano & 7 Instruments. # UNDERHILL: Cello Concerto* / *Ariel Barnes, cel; #Fides Krucker, mezzo-sop; Turning Point Ensemble / Orlando 0037
Following on the heels of the disc just reviewed (American Vistas by the Concordia String Trio) is this fascinating disc by the Canadian-based Turning Point Ensemble. They are a 17-piece chamber orchestra headed up by conductor and composer Owen Underhill, founded in 2002 in Vancouver. Their component members are violinist Mary Sokol Brown, violist Marcus Takizawa, cellists Ariel Barnes and Stefan Hintersteininger, bassist David Brown, trumpeter Al Cannon, trombonist Jeremy Berkman, French hornist Micajah Sturgess, flautist Brenda Fedoruk, oboist David Owen, clarinetists AK Coope and François Houle, bassoonist Ingrid Chang, harpists Heidi Krutzen and Janelle Nadeau, and percussionists Vern Griffiths and Aaron McDonald. Cellist Barnes is the soloist in both the Hindemith and Underhill works on this set.
They are clearly an enthusiastic young group of musicians who play with a lean tone and crisp, clean style, which is particularly apropos to the Hindemith work. The music simply sparkles in their expert hands (and lips), emerging in all its neoclassic glory, and their tight, incisive chords remind one of the way a technical master such as Rodziński would have conducted this music. Barnes’ cello tone, too, is lean and precise, eschewing the more luscious tone of those who specialize in Romantic-era music. To a certain extent, this works against him in the slow third movement, “Sehr ruhige und gemessen schreitende Viertel,” yet his legato is excellent enough to at least suggest the “quiet, measured walking quarter notes” that Hindemith intended. Interestingly, violinist Brown plays here with a nice vibrato, which I liked very much and which I think Hindemith would have appreciated as well. (He was, after all, one of the greatest violists of his day, and knew the violin and cello intimately as well.)
Berio’s folk song arrangements run the gamut from American to Jewish, French, Italian, Azerbaijan and three other cultures. They were written, of course, for his wife at the time, mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, and in the lines notes Fides Krucker tells of her utter fascination with Berberian’s performance and how she “spent hours listening to her transform the shape of her mouth, adjust her resonators, and widen or narrow her airflow as she recreated the sound of eight different vocal cultures.” Krucker does a splendid job on them, using her very pretty mezzo voice and, better yet, perfect diction (listen up, operatic mezzos! Her enunciation is as clear as a bell!) to limn the music with just the right feel in every piece. I was particularly impressed by Berio’s arrangement of “I Wonder As I Wander,” which is highly imaginative and surely the finest version of this song I’ve ever heard. Kruecker really gets into her work here, doing a fantastic job on the “Azerbaijan Love Song” as well on all the others.
We then reach Underhill’s Cello Concerto, subtitled “The Curio Box.” It’s a well-written piece in the usual modern style of today: lyric themes stretched across biting, acerbic, bitonal background figures. What gives the first movement distinction is the lovely, elegiac melody he created for the cello, a haunting theme that will surely appeal even to the tonally-biased. It is also well-developed music, with Underwood using a variant of the cello theme for the oboe and allowing the soloist to stretch out in an extemporé fashion before the chamber orchestra returns to play syncopated figures that bounce around. As Underhill puts it in the liner notes, “The idea of the [Chinese] curio box seemed to me quite musical in the way that musical memory often contains music of different places, timeperiods, and expressions.” Underhill likewise plays with rhythms and motives in the second movement, “The Impossible Return,” using both the opening melody and end of the first movement in a new way, featuring the solo cellist. The third movement, “Assemblage,” puts pieces of the first two movements together in a sort of crazy-house manner. It’s a fascinating piece.
In toto, then, an excellent CD of well-chosen music, well-performed and holding the listener’s attention.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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